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House approves measure to make it easier to obtain a conviction in an overdose death

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Scott Plakon

Rep. Scott Plakon

The House has approved a measure that would make it easier to prosecute drug dealers for first-degree murder when a customer suffers a fatal overdose.

The House voted 75-38 on February 24 to approve HB 95 by Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood.

During floor debate, Plakon stressed that a dozen Floridians are dying every day from drug overdoses.

“In each of these tragedies, drug dealers made a profit off of the pain of Florida’s families,” Plakon said.

The measure would amend a 1972 law that makes an adult’s unlawful distribution of a controlled substance first-degree murder if the substance is the “proximal” cause of a victim’s death.

The measure would substitute “proximal cause” with “a substantial factor in the death of the user.”

Prosecutors requested the change because the current standard is too difficult to prove when a victim’s blood contains traces of multiple substances, Plakon said.

The measure would also implement two recommendations by the Statewide Taskforce on Opioid Abuse.

Formed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2019, the taskforce recommended adding methamphetamine to the enumerated substances in the 1972 law, and to enhance criminal penalties for peddling drugs within 1,000-feet of a drug treatment center.

Critics blasted the measure for being overly harsh.

Rep. Andrew Learned, D-Riverview, agreed with adding methamphetamine to the existing statute. But he said executing a drug dealer for an overdose goes too far.

“That means you can get the electric chair for this, not because they intended to murder somebody, but because you are a drug dealer,” he said.

The measure could also subject a defendant to a mandatory life sentence, Learned said.

“Why even have a judiciary if we are going to make one outcome for all situations and all circumstances,” he said.

Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa and an attorney, argued that the bill would expand the definition of first-degree murder too far by adding a civil standard.

She quoted from a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court opinion that reversed a manslaughter conviction because the defendant’s actions couldn’t be directly tied to the death.

“This is a slippery slope, and Justice [Antonin] Scalia considered the same factors,” she said. “The Constitution has to matter; due process has to matter.”

But Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Valrico, who is also an attorney, described meeting Scalia and discussing a ruling in which the late justice overturned a drug conviction due to a procedural error by law enforcement.

“He said to me, ‘I didn’t want to let that drug dealer out, but I had to follow the law,’” Beltran said. “He did not legislate from the bench, because he followed his role, just as we should follow ours.”

A Senate companion, SB 190 by Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Lake Mary, is awaiting final passage on the Senate calendar.

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